ATLANTA (AP) — Paul Casey keeps flashing that defiant grin, keeps insisting he’s not trying to prove anyone wrong.
Yet every time he shoots in the 60s, he sends another message to Monty:
Hey, you should’ve picked me for the Ryder Cup.
Casey put up his best score yet since being passed over by European captain Colin Montgomerie, shooting a 4-under 66 Thursday for a share of the lead with Geoff Ogilvy and Luke Donald after the opening round of the Tour Championship.
For anyone counting – and Casey says he’s not – that’s the seventh time in nine rounds he’s broken 70 since Monty selected Donald, Padraig Harrington and Edoardo Molinari with his captain picks.
“I’m not getting wrapped up in any sort of extra motivation,” Casey said. “I don’t need extra motivation. I’m motivated enough.”
A $10 million consolation prize wouldn’t hurt either.
Casey was the only player among the top five in the FedEx Cup standings to break par, no easy task on a difficult course in steamy conditions. The East Lake fairways are fast and more narrow than ever, and only nine players in the 30-man field shot in the 60s.
The top five in the standings can claim golf’s biggest payoff by winning, no matter what anyone else does. Casey got to No. 5 with his runner-up finish two weeks ago at Cog Hill in the last of three playoff events that set the elite field for the season-ending championship.
“I still think this carries serious weight,” Casey said. “There will be a lot of pressure on whoever it is who wins this trying to make that final putt. Hopefully that’s me. … I might take some time off after that. It would be nice.”
Of course, he would prefer to be playing at Celtic Manor – and plenty of people are stunned that he won’t be.
While Casey hasn’t won this year, he played in the final group at the British Open, tied for 12th at the PGA Championship and has risen to No. 7 in the world rankings coming off a rib injury that cost him the second half of the 2009 season.
He’ll have to settle for being just another television viewer next week.
“I don’t know what it’ll be like watching it,” Casey said. “Before I was on tour, I thought it was one of the best sporting events on TV, if not the best. Obviously it was always what I wanted to do, so I was captivated by it. I thought it was just brilliant TV, the drama of it, the matches, the emotions. Yeah, I loved it, so I think I will – I think I’ll tune in.”
Donald is trying to build some momentum for the Ryder Cup, along with winning the tournament. His last victory on the U.S. tour came at the 2006 Honda Classic, and he’s had six runner-up finishes since then.
Six birdies in a round of 66 gave him hope of finally getting over the hump.
“I certainly feel a certain amount of urgency,” said Donald, who came into the Tour Championship as the No. 7 seed. “I feel like I’m good enough, I work hard enough to win out here. I just haven’t done it the last few years. There’s no one more motivated than myself to try and rectify that.”
It was awkward for him when Casey was left off the Ryder Cup team for the first time since 2002, especially since Donald’s brother is Casey’s caddie. Still, he didn’t see a correlation in Casey’s recent form to any Ryder Cup snub.
“Paul has had a solid year in general,” Donald said. “He’s a top-10 player in the world, so you expect him to play well.”
Ogilvy, an Australian, isn’t eligible for the Ryder Cup, and he didn’t look like much of a contender for the FedEx Cup until he tied for second at the TPC Boston, the second of the playoff events. That gave him thoughts of winning it all, even though he came to East Lake as just the No. 12 seed.
“I think I get a pretty good feel for when it’s coming around,” he said. “But I don’t know why.”
Also lurking was defending tournament champion Phil Mickelson, who has an outside chance to win the FedEx Cup and a better chance to replace Tiger Woods at No. 1 in the world. Woods did not qualify for the Tour Championship for the first time in his career.
Mickelson had two eagles in a span of four holes, including a shot he holed from the fairway on No. 12. Not so good was making bogey after both eagles, along with consecutive bogeys after his first birdie of the tournament. Still, he shot 69, not a bad start.
“It’s a better position than I started last year,” said Mickelson, who opened with a 73 and went on to a three-shot victory. “Could have been better, could have been worse, and it was an interesting day.”
Matt Kuchar, the top seed in the FedEx Cup whose golfing career is rooted in Atlanta, chipped in for eagle on the 15th hole. That wasn’t enough to offset four bogeys in his round of 72, including a tee shot into the stands on the par-3 18th.
Dustin Johnson, the No. 2 seed, struggled off the tee on his way to a 74, while Steve Stricker (No. 4) also had a 74. Charley Hoffman, part of the top five from his victory at the TPC Boston, had a 71.
It only helps Casey and his bid to win the FedEx Cup when the four players ahead of him are behind him on the leaderboard.
He took notice of that when he glanced at video screens around East Lake.
“The big screens they have out there never go past the top 20, and I wasn’t seeing anybody in the top five (in FedEx Cup standings) in that top 20,” Casey said. “There is a very long way to go, though.”